The Philippines is a treasure trove of abundant natural resources. Amidst the sprawling wealth, however, lies a neglected and overlooked gem—our agriculture sector. But for Filipina Farmer and Entrepreneur Cherrie Atilano of AGREA PH, this untapped opportunity revealed itself early on while she was harvesting prickly sugarcane under the sun.


Rooted in struggle, harvested with education

Cherrie, who lost her father at the age of three, grew up working on a sugarcane farm with her mother in Silay City, Negros Occidental. This opened her eyes to the working conditions of farmers like her. “We would work under the heat of the sun, do the weeding, and since the sugarcane is really sharp, I got scratches all over my skin. But the income is so little,” Cherrie recounts.

Her resolve to help led her to get a high school scholarship, where she discovered a book on Biointensive Gardening at the Scholarship center. Its pages sparked a passion for creating meaningful change.

At just 11 years old, Cherrie began teaching fellow farmers how to grow vegetables and compost farm waste, which became crucial for their survival. This early endeavor shaped her life choices and inspired her to leave home to pursue her education in Leyte, supported by her mother's belief in her potential.

Eventually, she was employed as a Landscape Supervisor and Agriculturist at Ayala Land Corporation, making her mark on landmark projects involving Greenbelt and Bonifacio Global City. Despite the salary and job security, Cherrie knew that she was meant to do something greater. A year later, she resigned to work with Gawad Kalinga.

Cherrie worked in the Bayan Anihan Program for the first 3 years to build farms in different communities, “It’s basically feeding 30 families in one village with 1,000 square meters of land. We built farms all over the country, including Zamboanga, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi.

At 23 years old, Cherrie applied for and passed a Fulbright Scholarship at an Ivy League school. However, her experiences, education, and exposure to the realities of farmers in the Philippines drove her to make a strategic and impactful choice to give up the scholarship. ”I’m not going to pursue my scholarship because I want to help build a better livelihood for the farmers in the enchanted farm at Angat Bulacan. At that time, there was no electricity, no water, talagang nag-iigib kami.

Choosing to forego the prestige and potential career advancement offered to her, Cherrie expressed her commitment to transforming the agricultural sector in the Philippines.


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Building AGREA PH through Creativity, Collaboration, and the Circular Economy

To tap into the vast potential of agriculture, Cherrie Atilano took a bold stride and founded AGREA PH, a farm school in Marinduque that provides hands-on training and education to farmers.

AGREA PH, derived from "Gaia" (the Greek goddess of Earth) and “Agriculture”, embodies the concept of Ecology of Dignity. This approach recognizes the interconnectedness of farmers, consumers, and the ecosystem, and neglecting any aspect can have adverse effects.

Drawing on her entrepreneurial spirit, Cherrie built AGREA PH from the ground up, visiting various farms in Marinduque and forging deep connections with the farmers over meals and coffee. Through these interactions, Cherrie earnestly listened to their struggles, making her more driven to uplift their lives, “These people, who are actually producing the food we eat, could barely have food on their plates. For me, that’s the biggest crime against humanity.

However, in its early years, AGREA PH encountered a myriad of financial challenges, including a lack of government support and the recurring threat of typhoons drying up investment. Relying on her personal funds and support from friends and family, Cherrie displayed immense resilience as she tirelessly worked to sustain the organization. Her financial strategies and acumen became her shield against the storms of entrepreneurship.

To ensure financial stability, especially in sustaining the on-going capacity building of the farmers, the organization established the AGREA Foundation in 2016. They opened a farm school in 2017 to focus on educating the farmers on sustainable ways of agriculture and the basics of agripreneruship. Cherrie expanded AGREA PH’s reach and utilized their ISPs (Intentional and Sustainable Partnerships) with local and international organizations, including Oxfam, the United Nations, Sodexo, East-West Seed, and more, gaining access to grants, aid, and CSR donations.

“ISPs help us better our business by knowing what is enough for us in terms of profit and shared accountability. Because of this, we collaborate or partner with other players in the food systems who share our value systems, decent conduct of business on ethical fair trading with the farmers, and passion towards protecting our planet,” Cherrie explains.

With this model, the partnerships they’ve made offer more than just financial resources; they provide a network of support, expertise, and opportunities that can elevate any business to new heights.

AGREA PH's strategy is also deeply grounded in its three C's: Creativity, Collaboration, and the Circular Economy. Cherrie actively seeks out skilled and like-minded individuals and organizations to work together, fostering a culture of creative problem-solving.

Cherrie and her team embrace the principles of the Circular Economy to maximize resources, “In our business with Sodexo, we supply the fruits and vegetables they need. We bring the food waste from the vegetable trimmings in Payatas to become compost and convert more land into urban farms. We don’t throw away the rejected fruits and vegetables. We also bring them to Payatas for a feeding program on Saturdays to malnourished children. Nothing goes to waste,” Cherrie explains.

The innovative adoption of the Circular Economy is an effective strategy for financial management. It shows that reducing, reusing, and recycling resources can lead to operational efficiency, lower costs, and even open new income streams, all contributing to a more robust financial position.

AGREA PH also invests in human capital with their Farmer's Resiliency Program, empowering farmers with knowledge and skills that can protect and grow a business in the face of financial uncertainties. “When they graduate from the AGREA farm school, we give them sisiw or pigs. We give them seeds, farm tools, and a water sprinkler to ensure they can farm,” Cherrie says.

AGREA PH also finds innovative solutions and strategically prepares for potential challenges such as climate change or price fluctuations. “We’ve been testing vegetables that you could plant beside calamansi. We’ve been testing to plant all the local fruit trees in the Philippines in one place. We’re also modeling dwarf coconuts since a lot of people are afraid to climb the coconut tree,” she explains. This initiative will be the first Regenerative Farm Innovation Hub in the Philippines, located in Marinduque.

Cherrie and her team's innovative approach have ensured the stability and growth of AGREA PH, consistently building on their goal to transform the agriculture sector. These forward-thinking financial strategies are valuable insights that any entrepreneur can learn from. As businesses evolve, the ability to adapt and innovate becomes the key to surviving and thriving.


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Boosting Agriculture’s Potential for a Sustainable Future

In Cherrie's journey, we see fundamental entrepreneurial lessons that resonate far beyond the fields of agriculture.

Despite the challenges AGREA PH went through, Cherrie Atilano embodies two key factors that sustain oneself as an entrepreneur: passion and purpose. She finds fulfillment in witnessing the joy of the farming communities she serves. Her passion and purpose drive her success, reminding us of the power of mission-driven work, “You see the bright eyes of the farmers, you see them thanking you because they have toilets, basic needs, they have children studying in universities.

Her direct engagement with farmers emphasizes the value of understanding stakeholders and building strong relationships. This applies to businesses across industries, fostering trust and loyalty.

Leveraging available resources and diversifying streams of income were Cherrie’s first entrepreneurial lessons: don't put all your eggs in one basket. Diversifying your income can be a lifeline when one stream is underperforming.

Cherrie's commitment to a sustainable and circular economy also reflects the importance of eco-conscious practices. As the world becomes more aware of environmental issues, businesses that prioritize sustainability not only contribute positively to the environment but also cater to a growing market of conscious consumers, aligning sustainability with business growth.

Finally, Cherrie sees farmers as fellow entrepreneurs who hold the power to construct a brighter future for the country. By focusing on improving the livelihoods of grassroots communities, she believes in creating a stronger foundation for a stable and sustainable economy.


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